Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, April 2010
Ralph Nader, Cultural Complex of the American Psyche
By Nozomi Hayase
Al-Jazeerah, ccun.org, April 5, 2010
Ralph Nader is a controversial figure in American politics. Recently he has been in the progressive media spotlight. In an article on Truthdig, titled Ralph Nader Was Right About Barack Obama published on March 1, 2010, Chris Hedges pointed out that many progressives in America owe him apology in light of the Obama presidency turning out just as Nader had predicted (or even worse). On Democracy Now, congressman Dennis Kucinich and Nader discussed the recent health insurance bill, showing a marked contrast in their views on the validity of the current American political system. Amy Goodman also interviewed Michael Moore and gave him an opportunity to rethink his begging on bended knee to Nader not to run in 2004 (Where he defended his stance).
The deeper dimensions of political debates can be revealed by looking at underlying psychological aspects at work. It is clear that political debate and civic engagement happens not only at an intellectual level, but is also engaged at a deeply emotional level, sometimes calling up an almost religious fervor. One way to unravel the intricate weave of emotion and ideology in politics is to look at the psychological phenomenon called the complex.
Psychoanalyst, Jolande Jacobi (1973) elucidates C. G Jung’s psychological concept of the complex in a way that can be helpful for understanding what lives in the emotional soup that typifies this aspect of the American political process:
Jung defines complexes as “psychic entities that have escaped from the control of consciousness and split off from it, to lead a separate existence in the dark sphere of the psyche, whence they may at any time hinder or help the conscious performance”. (p. 36)
The power of the complex to affect behavior lies in its activity remaining in the unconscious. Complexes are often at work in one's struggle to effectively engage in the political process and in a sense, it can be said that whole groups of people or even nations can exhibit a kind of complex, which can then be used to affect a political outcome. Psychologist Jacobi describes how “the origin of the complex is often a so-called trauma, an emotional shock, or something of the sort, by which a fragment of the psyche is ‘encapsulated’ or split off” (p. 38). What could be the possible traumatic experiences that American people suffer at the root of the complicated behaviour found in the American political psyche? Looking at Ralph Nader's engagement in the electoral arena may shed light on the cultural complex of American psyche.
In the 1960s as a young lawyer, Nader rose to national consciousness when he challenged General Motors for their lax safety regulation. He won a big battle with the car manufacturer, successfully holding a large corporation accountable by working through what was at that time a more responsive legislative process. Since that first success, Nader led causes to put through laws one after another that regulate corporations and protect working class citizens. A few examples of this are the Clean Air Act, Freedom of Information Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Mine and Health Safety Act, OSHA and so on. Under the spotlight of the media Nader claimed his role as consumer advocate, an interpretation given to his work that fits the capitalistic frame of mind. Soon he became a national icon of a successful citizen activist. His image as a crusader for justice quickly was accepted in the American consciousness. In 1990, Life Magazine and again in 1999, Time Magazine named Nader one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. In the 60s and 70s, Nader established a powerful legacy in the mind of American public (Answers Corporation, 2008). It was when Nader announced his run for the presidency in the year 2000 that this symbol of crusader that for decades held firm in the American consciousness began to erode. Since then, there have been widely diverse perceptions and opinions about him.
In the last 20 years, Nader has worked hard to try and address the ever-increasing corporate control of American politics. His work as a presidential candidate and was met with vociferous opposition from Democrats. He was treated as if he really did not have a right to run. One could regard Nader's presidential runs as a threat to the very system that sustains and encourages concentration of power, as his message, were it to be exposed in the mainstream media, would expose the machinations and domination of modern corruption. The corporate power working behind the US political system has adamantly attacked Nader (or else made sure he was ignored), as if recognizing that the man who took on the auto industry in the '60s for lax safety regulation might now be taking on the unregulated defective engine of an unsafe, manufactured political system.
Journalist William Greider called Nader, "A man of political substance trapped in an era of easy lies. He pierces the fog of propaganda with hard facts and reason, but the smoke rolls over him and he disappears from public view" (Nov 17, 2008). The mainstream mass media has perennially taken the side of the two parties to defend the system of power and lent their pens to cover up the deception with a complete blackout, keeping challenges to the two-party system from entering into the consciousness of the American people. Two tendencies can be observed in the mainstream media when it comes to Nader. One is to simply block him out. The other is to frame his words so to create a one-sided image. The main label put on Nader is that of an "election spoiler", ostensibly ruining the election for the Democrats. To spoil means to ruin something that is fresh, useful, and good. It cannot be denied the tone of this word is negative, and is brought in relationship specifically to the Democratic Party, with the view that Nader received some votes that may have gone to democratic candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Nader and others have pointed out that in a true Democracy, everyone has a right to run for office, so if one party is “stealing” votes from another candidate, then either they are all spoilers of each others run, 'stealing' votes from their opponents or none of them are.
Ever since the 2000 election, it appears that Nader’s public image has been associated with the phrase, “Nader the spoiler”. Some progressives react even just hearing his name as if it released a bad odour of something like spoiled, rotten food. Katha Pollitt (2008) writes, upon hearing Ralph’s intention to run in the 2008 election, “I wanted to shout at the screen, where’s your dignity? Do you really want to go down in history as the world’s most irritating vanity candidate?” (p. 9). It appears that his presence in the electoral arena stirs up something in people, producing emotionally charged reactions such as confusion, irritation, and agitation. At the same time his presence awakens in some inspiration and a feeling of empowerment.
It doesn't seem to matter how many times the Democratic leaders prove Nader right by enacting pro-corporate and pro-war policies which are virtually indistinguishable from republicans in substance. The image of Nader filtered and crafted by media and the closed political system seems to have created a psychic condition that challenges American people. Some seem to struggle to digest and process the given storyline about him and reconcile it with the memory of his past legacy and earlier image as a successful advocate for the people with benefits on everyday the lives of every American. Those who identify themselves as Progressives or Democrats in particular, reveal this psychic state in their mixed feelings toward Nader. For instance, on the one hand they feel admiration and a deep sense of respect toward him for what he has done for the American people, but on the other they have difficulty making sense of his efforts in his run as a presidential candidate, as the two party framework is so embedded in the psyche.
What is this affect that disturbs people and causes such an emotional reaction when it comes to Nader run for president? There still lives a glorious memory of him as a crusader for justice in many Americans, yet as soon as he moved into the electoral arena, there is something preventing people from letting him stay in their consciousness in the way he first arose to national consciousness in the 60s. The affect that is created in people now when it comes to Nader in politics is a kind of constellated energy (a complex) that hinders ability to carry out rational discussion, to listen to one another and converse in a constructive manner about common issues. Can this attitude provoked by Nader be seen as expression of a complex shared by a group of people, in this case of the national consciousness?
Thomas Singer and Samuel Kimbles (2004) introduced the notion that a complex that is shared by a certain group of people should be called a cultural complex.
Cultural complexes are based on repetitive, historical group experiences which have taken root in the unconscious of the group. At any ripe time, these slumbering cultural complexes can be activated in the cultural unconscious and take hold of the collective psyche of the group and the individual/collective psyche of individual members of the group. The inner sociology of the cultural complexes can seize the imagination, the behaviour and the emotions of the collective psyche and unleash tremendously irrational forces in the name of their “logic”. (p. 7)
So, has Nader become a trigger for a cultural complex within the American psyche? If so, how did this particular cultural complex come to be. In other words, how did this consumer advocate, who was once admired by American people, become a cultural complex of this nation? Many shut him out from their consciousness and are bothered by his presence as if his voice echoes in the back of their minds like the stabbing pain of a brain tumour that never goes away. Psychologist C. G. Jung wrote (1954/1959) how complexes should not to be ignored or pushed away into the doghouse of one’s unconscious. He asserts that giving them attention releases their invisible bonds so that constellated energies in the complex move freely and foster the manifestation of one’s full potential.
Something is trying to get the attention of this Nation; otherwise the Nader phenomenon would not cause so much psychic pain. What is it underneath the collective consciousness that is demanding attention? Perhaps Nader is just the trigger that reminds citizens of something they are afraid to look at inside.
Time and again, Nader pointed out that the heart of civic power lies in the hands of each citizen. His presence in the electoral arena has exposed how the power of people has been diminished and revealed how “We the People” have little oversight or meaningful input to the government. This is one of the first symptoms of a weakening democracy. The Nader complex can reveal something about American citizen’s role and their own attitude toward themselves. Is this cultural complex is a block that prevents Americans from connecting to their own civic power?
The weakening of civic power seen in the absence of people's voices in the US
political system is a sign of this nation’s traumatized identity. Nader once related how Eugene Debs was asked the question, “What’s your biggest regret?” to which Deb answered, “Under our Constitution, the American people can have almost everything they want... My biggest regret is they don't seem to want very much...” (as cited in Aymery, May 19, 2008). The traumatized identity results in low self-esteem, perpetuating further abuse of corporate power over citizens. This creates a new set of collective symptoms of trauma and can be manipulted. One symptom that is prevalent among Americans is a sense of disempowerment. The lethargic attitude toward politics in general among American people widely accepted as fact. Another symptom is a sense of fear among those who are more engaged when confronted with the lack of choices in the candidates and the decaying of the American potential. This fear is co-opted and drives people towards repeating the addictive voting pattern of choosing the "lesser of two evils" and “ABB (anything but Bush) syndrome” that Mumia Abu Jamal (2008) pointed to (Free Speech Radio, July 3, 2008). The candidate may not represent their interests, but compared to the other available option, the prevailing fear says that he or she has to win. All symptoms described above point to constellated psychic energy that hinders one from accessing one’s own true civic power.
Nader’s presence in the electoral arena challenges the roots of the very system that is now in place, through his challenge of the dominating power of corporate control of both parties, thus revealing what was swept under the surface of the consciousness of this nation. With his presence, people are reminded of the traumatised self who passively replaced the voice of conscience with the voices of outer authority, denying ones own power. Nader’s actions make people nervous, especially those that tend to cling to the status quo. They feel uncomfortable and restless as if he holds the mirror of the American conscience in front of them and with its light that directly speaks to the conscience. They cannot look straight in the mirror that shows compliance with the power overriding impulse toward self determination from within.
New ideas threaten people and at the same time bring a kind of awakening. Nader is a symbol of the power of ordinary citizens. Note the citizen’s role in making history that has been behind all important social changes, such as the abolition of slavery and women’s right to vote. They have never been initiated by the parties in power. Nader carries on the thread of the healing movements that came before, reminding people that change always starts with small groups of ordinary citizens and that dissent is the first step toward assent.
Perhaps Nader triggers the complex of the American psyche. He points to the real source of strength that lies within. He reminds us that change will not come from a charismatic political messiah, but only through a resurrection of “We the People”.
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